In honor of Mother’s Day, I want to tell you about my dog, Brandy. You may be wondering what my dog has to do with Mother’s Day. It’s not because I am one of those people who says to my dog, “Come to mommy.” I swore I wasn’t going to refer to myself as “mommy” when talking to my dog, although I do sometimes find myself saying to Brandy, “Go to daddy,” referring to my husband. The reason this article about my dog is tied to Mother’s Day is because my mother gave her to me as a birthday present. You see, my mother dislikes dogs and refused to get me a dog when I was growing up. Instead, I waited until my 40th birthday for my mother to acquiesce finally and buy me a dog, which leads me to some of the most important lessons I have gained from Brandy: if you have a good relationship, a great deal of patience (about 35 years), and a sense of humor, anything can be accomplished.
1. The power of a positive relationship.
First and foremost, having a dog taught me that nothing else can be accomplished if a positive relationship has not been established. I have have found that the more I put into my relationship with my dog, the more I get out. The same is true in my work with campers and their families. Whenever I work with parents and/or children, I always emphasize that nothing can be accomplished without first establishing a positive relationship. Think of the people in your life who care about you and treat you with respect and fairness. Aren’t you willing to do things for them because of your positive relationship? Isn’t the converse true as well?
2. The feeling of a warm greeting.
One concrete way to establish a positive relationship with campers and their families is to greet them warmly. One of the reasons people love dogs is that they are always excited to see you. When my children’s bus comes down the block, my dog’s tail starts to wag, which then turns into a full-out wiggle, which ultimately turns into a full body twist as the kids enter the house. My dog reacts as if she is seeing her long-lost friend after 100 years. Now, my dog just saw my kids in the morning, but you could never tell by her greeting.
I remember when I was waiting for my daughter’s bus to arrive on her first day of camp the counselor came off the bus with a big smile. Her smile made me feel confident about putting my trust in the organization and my daughter felt happy and safe with her new adventure.
Every day, be excited to see your campers. Greet them with a huge smile and lots of energy. We know smiling is contagious. Maintain those warm, happy feelings by making the youth you work with feel that they are the people that you have been waiting for all your life.
3. The key is in consistency.
It is essential when owning a dog to be consistent. For example, you can’t one day allow your dog to sleep in your bed and then the next day change your mind. The other day, my son said to Brandy, “Do you want to play the guitar?” Now at the moment, he thought this was cute. But he can’t expect Brandy to think it is OK to touch the guitar today, but then tomorrow be angry when all the strings are broken because she has touched it.
The same is true with campers and their parents. Have clear expectations for them and stick to them. It is unfair to allow the children, for example, to play with your hat one day, but then the next day not let them; or to allow some parents to provide packages, but others not. By being consistent, routines will be internalized and it will be easier for everyone to follow the rules.
Many times, counselors feel that by establishing rules and expectations they are being “mean” and “un-fun.” However, everyone benefits from clear expectations because it feels lousy to get in trouble without realizing that you were doing anything wrong. When you have clear expectations, everyone feels more successful.
4. Create win-win scenarios.
How many of you have heard of the concept of “drop the rope”? Dr. Bob Ditter put this term on the map. “Drop the leash” is a variation on this concept. For those of you who are not familiar with this phrase, many campers and parents will approach you with a rope that they want you to grab. They are looking for a debate and someone to grab their “leash” and their negative energy. Don’t grab onto this leash. Instead drop it and react in a way you can be proud. Specifically, you should model an appropriate way to handle frustration rather than mirror out-of-control behavior. To accomplish this goal, try to understand what underlies the person’s actions. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy erases anger. By pausing to understand the reasons why someone may have said something inappropriate, you can better control your response. Remember, you can be a tremendous role model if you are able to pause to understand before you react, especially when you are feeling frustrated.
5. Treat each day as a new day.
As you can clearly see, I love my dog. However, there are things I don’t like. She barks at the mailman and attacks the mail (she thinks she is protecting us). In addition, around 7 p.m. each night, she just goes nuts. Although I am still trying to work on these issues, I also have learned to ACCEPT that
a) She is a dog
b) She isn’t perfect.
Learning to be more accepting is something that is essential to all relationships. It is important with the families that you work with to accept that there will be things that they say and do that you may not like. However, you need to look at the big picture and not sweat the small stuff. An attitude of true acceptance will allow you to enjoy the ride without being thrown by the bumps in the road.
People say that dogs have no long-term memory. Each day (and probably each hour) is brand new. This isn’t something that comes easily to humans. It is easy to get on a treadmill of resentment and not get off. By assuming that tomorrow will once again be challenging and that tomorrow will also be a bad day, you are setting yourself up for failure. By setting positive expectations, treating each day as new, and giving each child a fresh start, you are setting a tone of which you can be proud.
Owning a dog is a big responsibility. It is hard work and requires early mornings. But, the process is full of love and deeply rewarding. I hope that you see your role as a youth professional similarly: one that brings joy, fulfillment, and a real sense of accomplishment. Have a great Mother’s Day and opening to the camp season.
Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman is a psychologist, author, mother, and daughter. Please see my website (drbaruchfeldman.com) and follow me at twitter at carenfeldman@carenfeldman. Staff training videos by Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman are also available at expertonlinetraining.com. To book a workshop, please visit Drbaruchfeldman.com.